H.L. v. Matheson (1981)
In 1974, the Utah Legislature enacted a statute requiring a
physician to notify, if possible, the parents or guardian of an
unmarried minor before performing an abortion upon her. In
1978, an unmarried pregnant minor filed a lawsuit in state court
against the Governor of Utah and the Attorney General challenging
the statute on federal constitutional grounds. The minor
brought the lawsuit on her own behalf and on behalf of a class of
similarly situated minors. Following an abbreviated
evidentiary hearing, the trial court upheld the statute and
dismissed the plaintiff's complaint. The Supreme Court of
Utah unanimously affirmed the trial court's judgment.
Plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Statute Under Review
To enable the
physician to exercise his best medical judgment [in considering a
possible abortion], he shall:
all factors relevant to the well-being of the woman upon whom the
abortion is to be performed including, but not limited to,
physical, emotional and psychological health and safety,
(2) Notify, if
possible, the parents or guardian of the woman upon whom the
abortion is to be performed, if she is a minor or the husband of
the woman, if she is married.
Utah Code Ann. § 76-7-304.
The Court's Decision
By a six-to-three vote, the Supreme Court upheld the
constitutionality of § 76-7-304(2) and affirmed the judgment of the
Utah Supreme Court.
The Court's Reasoning
Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion for the
Court. At the outset of his opinion, Chief Justice Burger
noted that the minor "sought to represent a class consisting of
unmarried 'minor women who are suffering unwanted pregnancies and
desire to terminate their pregnancies but may not do so' because of
their physicians' insistence on complying with §
76-7-304(2)." H.L. v. Matheson, 450 U.S. at 401
(quoting plaintiff's complaint). For reasons that she did not
disclose in her complaint and would not disclose at the evidentiary
hearing, plaintiff asserted that she should be allowed to proceed
with the abortion without notifying her parents, an opinion which
was shared by a social worker she had consulted. Id.
At that hearing, plaintiff's counsel objected to any inquiry by the
State into his client's reasons for not wanting to notify her
parents and asserted that "[t]he only constitutionally permissible
prerequisites for performance of an abortion . . . were the desire
of the girl and the medical approval of the physician."
Id. at 403-04. The trial court sustained the
objection, concluded that the plaintiff was an appropriate
representative of the class she purported to represent and
construed § 76-7-304(2) to require the physician to notify the
minor's parents "if it is physically possible." Id.
at 404. So construed, the statute did interfere with the
constitutional rights of the minor. Accordingly, the trial
court dismissed plaintiff's complaint. Id.
In affirming the trial court's judgment, the Utah Supreme Court
stated that "the statute serves 'significant state interest[s]'
that are present with respect to minors but absent in the case of
adult women. Matheson, 450 U.S. at 404 (quoting Utah
Supreme Court's opinion). The state supreme court held that
"notifying the parents of a minor seeking an abortion is
'substantially and logically related' to the . . . factors set out
in § 76-7-304(1) because parents ordinarily posses information
essential to a physician's exercise of his best medical judgment
concerning the child.' " Id. at 405 (quoting
opinion). The court also concluded that "encouraging an
unmarried pregnant minor to seek the advice of her parents in
making the decision of whether to carry her child to term promotes
a significant interest in supporting the important role of parents
in child-rearing." Id. Because the statute
allows no veto power over the minor's decision to obtain an
abortion, "it does not unduly intrude upon a minor's rights."
Id. Finally, in interpreting the words, "if possible" in §
76-7-304(2), the Utah Supreme Court held that "the physician is
required to notify parents 'if under the circumstances, in the
exercise of reasonable diligence, he can ascertain their identify
and location and it is feasible or practicable to give them
notification.'" Id. (quoting opinion). The court
added that " 'the time element is an important factor, for there
must be sufficient expedition to provide an effective opportunity
for an abortion.' " Id.
In her appeal to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff challenged §
76-7-304(2) on its face. She argued that the statute "is
overbroad in that it can be construed to apply to all unmarried
minor girls, including those who are not mature and
emancipated." Matheson, 450 U.S. at 405 (setting
forth plaintiff's argument). The Court declined to reach that
question, however, because plaintiff never alleged or offered any
evidence that either she or any member of the class she represented
was mature or emancipated. Id. at 405-06. The
trial court found that plaintiff was an unmarried fifteen-year old
living at home and dependent upon her parents for her
support. Id. at 406. That finding , in the
Court's judgment, did not afford a sufficient basis for concluding
that she was either mature or emancipated. Id.
Nor did the plaintiff explain why she did not want to notify her
parents. Accordingly, there was no basis for concluding that
an abortion without notification to her parents would have been in
her best interests. The only issue before the Court was "the
facial constitutionality of a statute requiring a physician to give
notice to parents, 'if possible,' prior to performing an abortion
on their minor daughter, (a) when the girl is living with and
dependent upon her parents, (b) when she is not emancipated by
marriage or otherwise, and (c) when she has made no claim or
showing as to her maturity or as to her relations with her
parents." Id. at 407.
Chief Justice Burger emphasized that the Utah statute mandated
parental notice, not consent, and, therefore, was
distinguishable from the parental consent statutes struck down in
Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428
U.S. 52 (1976), and Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622
(1979). Matheson, 450 U.S. at 408 (for an analysis
of the constitutional issues decided in Danforth and
Bellotti, please see the summaries for those cases).
Although a State "may not constitutionally legislate a blanket,
unreviewable power of parents to veto their daughter's abortion, a
statute setting out a 'mere requirement of parental notice' does
not violate the constitutional rights of an immature, dependent
minor." Id. (quoting Bellotti, 443 U.S. at
640 (Op. of Powell, J.)). As applied to immature and
dependent minors, "the statute plainly serves the important
considerations of family integrity and protecting adolescents . . .
." Id. at 411. In addition,
serves a significant state interest by providing an opportunity for
parents to supply essential medical and other information to a
physician. The medical, emotional, and psychological
consequences of an abortion are serious and can be lasting; this is
particularly so when the patient is immature. An adequate
medical and psychological case history is important to the
physician. Parents can provide medical and psychological
data, refer the physician to other sources of medical history, such
as family physicians, and authorize family physicians to give
Id. Utah's statute "is reasonably calculated to protect
minors in [plaintiff's] class by enhancing the potential for
parental consultation concerning a decision that has potentially
traumatic and permanent consequences." Id. at 412.
According to Chief Justice Burger, the mere possibility that
"the requirement of notice to parents may inhibit some minors from
seeking abortions is not a valid basis to void the statute as
applied to [plaintiff] and the class properly before us."
Matheson, 450 U.S. at 413. "The Constitution does
not compel a state to fine-tune its statutes so as to encourage or
facilitate abortions. To the contrary, state action
'encouraging childbirth except in the most urgent circumstances' is
'rationally related to the legitimate governmental objective of
protecting potential life.'" Id (quoting Harris v.
McRae, 448 U.S. 279, 325 (1980).
Apparently advancing an equal protection claim, the plaintiff
claimed that the constitutionality of § 76-7-304(2) was undermined
"because Utah allows a pregnant minor to consent to other medical
procedures without formal notice to her parents if she carries the
child to term." Matheson, 450 U.S. at 412 (summarizing
plaintiffs' claim). The Court rejected this claim, noting
that "a [S]tate's interests in full-term pregnancies are
sufficiently different to justify the line drawn by the
statutes." Id. (citation omitted).
Moreover, "[i]f the pregnant girl elects to carry her child to
term, the medical decisions to be made entail few-perhaps none-of
the potentially grave emotional and psychological consequences of
the decision to abort." Id. at 412-13.
Neither the plaintiff nor any member of the class she
represented claimed to be mature or emancipated. Nor did she
or any member of her class claim (or offer evidence) that
notification of her parents of her intention to obtain an abortion
would not be in her best interests. Accordingly, "[m]embers
of the particular class now before us have no constitutional right
to notify a court in lieu of notifying their parents."
Matheson, 450 U.S. at 412 n. 22. "This case,"
therefore, "does not require us to decide in what circumstances a
state must provide alternatives to parental notification."
The Concurring And Dissenting Opinions
Justice Powell, joined by Justice Stewart, concurred in Chief
Justice Burger's opinion, but wrote separately to emphasize that
the Court's decision left open "the question whether § 76-7-304(2)
unconstitutionally burdens the right of a mature minor or a minor
whose best interests would not be served by parental notification,"
and to reiterate the views he expressed in his plurality opinion in
Bellotti v. Baird, 443 U.S. 622 (1979).
Matheson, 450 U.S. at 414 (Powell, J., concurring).
Justice Stevens concurred in the judgment of the Court. In
Justice Stevens' view, the appeal presented the broader question as
to whether the State may require parental notice whenever an
unmarried minor seeks an abortion. Matheson, 450
U.S. at 420-21 (Stevens, J., concurring in the judgment). In
his opinion, it may do so. Id. at 421-25.
Justice Marshall, joined by Justices Brennan and Blackmun,
dissented. In Justice Marshall's opinion, the plaintiff (or
at least the class she represented) had standing to challenge the
notice statute on broader grounds than those recognized by the
Court. Matheson, 450 U.S. at 426-33 (Marshall, J.,
dissenting). Based on that standing, he would have found §
76-7-304(2) unconstitutional because the requirement of parental
notice in all cases was not narrowly tailored to promote
significant state interests. Id. at 441-54.